Ten Years at the Top: the Change Manager Changes… Himself

Friday 10 May 2019
The outgoing chief executive of direct line paul geddes shared lessons on leadership sell-by dates, selling a change narrative and modern hiring traits with a group of cmi companions

This summer Paul Geddes will step down as chief executive of Direct Line Group (DLG). What a decade it’s been. Geddes, a concert-standard violinist and self-confessed “Tiggerish” personality, has navigated the insurance group through the dark days of the financial crisis, the demerger from RBS, and a change management process that necessitated thousands of job losses and 17 branch closures.

Recently, Geddes sat down with an elite group of CMI Companions to reflect on those tumultuous ten years and where management and leadership are heading. CMI Insights sat in on a seriously illuminating conversation, and here are just a few highlights from a fascinating roundtable discussion:

There Are Three Conditions for Making Change Happen.

First, you can’t be happy and comfortable with where you are now. Second, you need a motivating destination where people will want to travel to with you. And third, you need a map. Geddes explained that, with DLG’s demerger from RBS, all three conditions were in place for a ‘textbook’ change programme. “I had some perfect conditions,” he said.

You Need the Right Narrative.

Anyone leading a change programme will have to repeat the key messages over and over, and to multiple audiences. So you’ll need a clear narrative that’s also consistent for different groups. Your employees should be hearing the same messages as your investors. “Respect the past, be honest about the present, and be optimistic about the future,” said Geddes.

Leaders Must Be Confident.

In any organisation, and especially one that’s going through change, the leader must exude confidence. This will be infectious and keep spirits up. Confident leaders talk about the future with absolute certainty. “If I could give people anything, it’d be a confidence pill,” said Geddes. Unfortunately, he observed, many people suffer from under-confidence.

You Cast a Long Shadow.

Geddes told a frank and revealing story from his time at DLG. He commissioned a study into the company’s culture and how to improve collaboration. The study concluded that he, Geddes, was part of the problem in that he didn’t always value collaboration among his own senior team. “One casts a long shadow as a leader,” he reflected. “So watch your own actions because other people are watching you like a hawk.”


DLG has made great use of ‘town hall’-style meetings. “They’re brilliant, a hugely good use of an hour,” said Geddes. In a large, dispersed organisation, it’s important for people to come to head office on a regular basis. And when they’re there, to hear a consistent story.

Talk to the Frontline.

Keep talking to your frontline staff. Listen to what they’re saying about customer pain points, about product problems. Geddes described Superdrug’s ‘IOPE’ approach (Involvement, Openness, Pride, Execution), which has set new standards in staff engagement.

Not Everything Goes Well.

Geddes was open about some of the mistakes he’s made during his tenure. “Everyone has a challenging IT programme,” he laughed. Often mistakes happen when there isn’t clear ownership or when there’s pressure to ‘do something’. It takes courage to stand up and say that a launch should be pulled or postponed. But remember, said Geddes: “the biggest risk is that you don’t change.”

Prioritise Bad Costs.

“There are good costs (marketing, training) and there are bad costs (bureaucracy, legacy systems),” said Geddes. “Generally it’s easier to take out the good costs.” But real leaders should seek to take out the bad costs, and get the support of their board in doing so, if necessary.

Life is Brilliant if You Hire the Best People.

Geddes described the two-year courtship that was required to hire one of his top executives. It was time and effort well spent, he said, because: “Alongside a good strategy, if you have the best people in the market, life’s brilliant.”

Hire People Who Can Take Feedback.

At one point during the Q&A, Geddes was asked about the trait that he most looks for when hiring talent. He thought for a moment, and then said: “Some people,” he observed, “think they’re the finished article.” Then he went on. “But one attitudinal characteristic that is indicative of success is the ability to take feedback.” This quality, he said, indicates an attitude of self-improvement. It shows that the person has a willingness for personal change.

We at CMI Insights would very much agree…